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In a recent gardeners’ survey, the tomato took first place in the homegrown vegetable popularity contest. And … no surprise … it wasn’t even close—cucumbers and peppers, in second and third place, were 40 points behind! The fresh-picked tomato experience is not just for those that own a sunny plot of rich soil. You can successfully grow tomatoes in containers on a patio, deck, or even a fire escape, as long as it captures at least 6 hours of sunlight a day.

Find a Large Pot
Even small tomato varieties have substantial root mass. The minimum pot size for a patio tomato should be 14 inches in diameter, with a capacity of at least 5 gallons. For best results go with a 17- to 20-inch pot that holds 15 to 20 gallons. And try to avoid black; it may cause the soil to overheat. The larger the pot size, the easier it will be to keep your plants from drying out, which will help prevent blossom end rot. A large pot will also help prevent your becoming a slave to the water needs of your potted tomatoes.

Use a Suitable Soil Mix
Be sure to purchase a potting mix that is specifically designed for tomatoes. Or you can make your own mix: Ohio University recommends 25% each potting soil, perlite, peat moss, and compost. Several healthy handfuls of worm castings ( black gold" is a great addition as well."

What About Those Upside-down Containers?

Reality check: You will have to work a lot harder to be successful.

Some commercial upside-down containers have a capacity well under 5 gallons—too small to be practical. Like all hanging planters they dry out rapidly in sunny weather, so your plants will require even more constant watering than they would in standard pots.

Also, the soil in a hanging container heats up quickly, causing stress. Gardeners using light-colored 5-gallon plastic buckets report having some luck.

 For the best chance of success with this method, choose only small-fruited varieties and start out with big tall vigorous seedlings so they can be planted very deeply (that is, with roots very close to the top). It's critical to hang the containers on a strong support—they will get heavy!  

Choose an Appropriate Variety
There are many choices of tomato varieties especially for container growing, with new patio tomatoes being introduced each year. Look for varieties labeled "determinate", or those described as “bush”, dwarf or short-season tomatoes. Some container varieties, sometimes referred to as tumbler-type tomatoes, have a cascading rather than bush habit, which eliminates the need for staking. These are suitable for window boxes.

It is possible to grow tall vining "indeterminate" garden favorites in containers, but keep in mind that large vines require roomy quarters—at least a 15- to 20-gallon pot—to sustain the roots and to accommodate stakes or cages. In general, varieties with small- to medium-sized fruits are better container choices than large beefsteaks… and choosing a hybrid variety with good resistance to diseases is helpful.

Stake Early
Don’t wait to stake potted tomatoes. Position 2-3 foot stakes or cages as even bush varieties will need them to help support their branches and heavy fruit sets. Add your stakes or cages when you plant your container.

Fertilize Regularly
Start your tomatoes off with a slow-release fertilizer (you'll find Certified Organic as well as conventional fertilizers are available at good garden centers and nurseries) mixed in with the top several inches of the soil. It should have a balanced ratio of N-P-K (5-5-5, for example). When your plants begin flowering, this is your cue to begin supplemental feeding every few weeks. Look for a balanced soluble fertilizer that will provide both the macro- and micronutrient needs of your tomatoes; a combination of fish emulsion and liquid seaweed is a good nonchemical and inexpensive standby. Be sure to properly to mix and apply fertilizer according to according to label directions.

Water Frequently
Try never to let your tomato plants wilt. Water your seedlings in well, and keep the soil moist but not sopping wet. Early in the season, this might mean watering once or twice a week, but once your plants size up and the weather heats up, you’ll probably be watering every day. If you plan to go away it might make sense to purchase an inexpensive container drip system and a timer.

Dwarf or "bush" tomatoes are determinate varieties that grow just 2 to 3 feet tall at maturity and are well suited for container growing. Sprawling “tumbler-type” tomatoes need no support.

 Home Garden Seed Association (HGSA) | P.O. Box 93, Maxwell, CA 95955 | Phone (530) 438-2126 | Email Us